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Happy Chinese New Year! It is year 4713! The Year of the Fire Monkey. Monkeys are intelligent and clever but mercurial and swift. Our in-house oracle thus prognosticates that this year will be intense and intellectual…yet scattered and jumpy (and, it goes without saying, that it will rush by swiftly). 2016…er….4713 is therefore a good year for fresh starts and running leaps. However scrying is not really this blog’s metier: let’s talk about monkeys!

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One of Ferrebeekeeper’s favorite and best topics is mammals, however I have (largely) avoided writing about primates. This is not because I dislike primates (although some species of monkeys and apes dwell in the uncanny valley where they are simultaneously so human and yet inhuman that the effect is deeply disconcerting), but because primates are very difficult to write about. Not only are they generalists who make their living through a wide range of complex behaviors, they also have elaborate social lives which require attention, sympathy and discernment to understand and present. Even primate taxonomy is complicated. There is a great divide between prosimians and anthropoids (which is now being reconceived as a divide between wet-nosed primates (non-tarsier prosimians) and the dry-nosed primates). There is a great geographic divide between New World and Old World Primates. There are 72 genera and hundreds of species–and that is only the ones that are extant—I am leaving out the extinct fossils.

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Primates have a similarly complex place in society, art, and mythology. Just look at Sun Wukong AKA Monkey King, the trickster god of classical Chinese mythology who is simultaneously Buddhist and animist, wicked and saintly, immense and infinitesimally miniscule. The Indian monkey god Hanuman is similarly protean and complex. And these are only the two monkey gods…the nimble arboreal creatures are found everywhere in religion, literature, and art.

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Finally, and above all, we..the readers and the writer…are primates. When the silverback from marketing comes by and harasses the trapped office women before displaying his dominance by making me move his stupid credenza around, I tell myself it is just the world economy. That may be true, but it is really all stupid monkeyshines. History is an intricate tapestry of primates desperately contending for privileged status. Here in America we are seeing lots of primate behavior—after all, it is an election year, and primates are ferociously hierarchical and tribal. Primates are also stupendously aggressive. Sometimes this trait combines with that big brain to make for horrendous violence. We are going to start unpacking some of this throughout the remainder of this week, which I dub “Primate Week” in honor of the fire monkey.

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Goose_attack

LG, the hero of yesterday’s post, is a charismatic genius of a goose: he went from being a wild animal (of a sort which most people consider to be a pest!) to having a whole hobby farm organized around him for his own amusement.  Of course there are geese at the opposite likability end of the spectrum….

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My parents had this one asshole goose (he had a name too, but I have forgotten it).  He was always cropping up in unexpected places hissing at you like a feathery viper and lunging at you.  If you are a domestic goose, it is unwise to alienate your human liaisons.  Sure, we look all innocent when we are handing out corn, but we are really giant axe-wielding tragic apes…insatiable, invasive, and dangerous.  Apparently the other geese realized this and they didn’t want my parents to get any notions about how delicious geese are (by the way, geese are really really delicious…maybe the most delicious thing there is–like eating heaven, if heaven were a rich fatty poultry).  Also, the geese didn’t like this jerk goose either, because he was a jerk to them all day every day.  He messed up really badly at gooseatics and made everyone—human and goose–hate him, so, before the axes came out, the flock banded together and straight-up murdered him. When they were all at the pond, the other geese grabbed the jerk goose, and held his head underwater until he drowned.

"We were just minding our business...He probably just slipped."

“We were just minding our business…He probably just slipped.”

I know about all of this because my parents watched it happen.  When it was obvious that gooseatics had turned sour and gone completely Roman, my father rushed down from the farmhouse to the pond, but he got there too late. The corpse of the hated goose was floating in the water and all of the other geese were looking extremely innocent & abashed as if to say, “Who us?  We certainly didn’t murder anyone!” There was nothing left to do but transform the unpleasant goose into delightful cutlets, quill pens, and throw pillows. I have one right here (a goose quill pen, not a cutlet).  I can use it for ink wash drawings or writing out inflammatory political treatises.

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I mention all of this as a way of explaining why I find geese so fascinating.  They are clever omnivorous, bipedal creatures which live for decades. They are sort of imperfectly monogamous, insatiably hungry, and prone to clans and squabbling (which can turn murderous).  Does anything seem strangely familiar in this description?

...like looking in a mirror

…like looking in a mirror

Today’s a post concerns Kahausibware, a dark ambiguous serpent-deity whose story is part of the mythology of Makira (which was known as San Cristóbal during the colonial era) an island in Solomon chain.  Kahausibware was a Hi’ona—a powerful supernatural being who created the world.  Like the Chinese serpent goddess Nüwa, Kahausibware was a demiurge—a primeval creator deity who gave life to humanity, however, Kahausibware was not as benevolent & understanding as gentle Nüwa.

According to myth, Kahausibware created pigs, cocoa-nut trees, and fruit trees.   Having created food, she then created animals and humans to use it.  Since the world was new, death was unknown.  Unfortunately Kahausibware was not patient with her creations and she had no tolerance for annoyances or distractions.  One day, a woman (who was an offspring of Kahausibware) requested that the serpent-deity babysit while she (the woman) went to harvest fruit.  The human child would not stop screaming and wailing, so Kahausibware wrapped around the infant and suffocated him—thus bringing death into the world.   At this fateful moment the woman returned with her fruit.  Seeing her child dead, she flew into a rage and began to hack Kahausibware into pieces with an axe.

Ornamented War Axe, Solomon Islands–19th century (photo by Hughes Dubois)

The snake-being was divine, so her dismembered pieces kept fusing back together, but the pain of the assault was overwhelming.  The serpent escaped into the ocean and swam away forever from the island of Makira, but, as she left she withdrew her blessings of abundance and ease.  Since that time, life in the Solomon Islands has become difficult.  Famines and crop failures became facts of life and death spread everywhere.   The islanders still venerate snakes, the mortal embodiment of Kahausibware—but where the amoral creator has gone is a mystery.

Custom Dancing on Makira (Photo by Bruce Hops)

Asian Giant Hornet (Vespa mandarinia)

The world’s largest hornet is the Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia).  An individual specimen can measure up to 5 cm (2 inches) long and has a wingspan of 7.6 cm (3 inches).  Giant hornets have blunt wide heads which look different from those of other wasps, hornets, and bees and they are colored yellow orange and brown.

The Asian giant hornet ranges from Siberia down across the Chinese coast into Indochina and lives as far west as India, however the hornet is most common in the rural parts of Japan where it is known as the giant sparrow bee.  The sting of the Asian giant hornet is as oversized as the great insect is.  Within the hornet’s venom is an enzyme, mastoparan, which is capable of dissolving human tissue. Masato Ono, an entomologist unlucky enough to be stung by the creature described the sensation a “a hot nail through my leg.” Although the sting of a normal honey bee can kill a person who is allergic to bees, the sting of an Asian giant hornet can kill a person who has no allergies–and about 70 unfortunate souls are killed by the hornets every year.

Close-up of Asian Giant Hornet (Vespa mandarinia)

Armed with their size and their fearsome sting, Asian giant hornets are hunters of other large predatory insects like mantises and smaller (i.e. all other) hornets.  The giant hornets do not digest their prey but masticate it into a sticky paste to feed to their own offspring.  A particular favorite prey is honey bee larvae, and since European honey bees have no defense against the giant wasps, all efforts by Japanese beekeepers to introduce European bees have met with failure.  Japanese honey bees however have evolved a mechanism (strategy?) to cope with hornet incursion.  When a hive of Japanese honey bees detects the pheromones emitted by hunting hornets, a crowd of several hundred bees will form a gauntlet (carefully leaving a space for the hornet to enter).  Once the hornet walks into the trap the bees rush on top of it and grasp it firmly. They then begin to vibrate their flight muscles which raises the temperature and produces carbon dioxide.  Since giant hornets cannot survive the CO2 levels or high temperatures that honey bees can, the hornets put up a titanic struggle to overcome the mass of bees, killing many in the process.  However honey bees have a fanaticism which would do credit to the most ardent practitioner of Bushido, and they usually kill the invaders.

Honey bees killing an Asian Giant Hornet

Ah summer…the perfect time for a delicious guacamole quesadilla or a tasty avocado salad.  But have you ever looked inside an avocado?  Beneath the delicious green flesh is an immense hard seed as big as a golf ball.  Trees compete by spreading seeds efficiently.  The Norway maple in my back yard produces thousands of helicopter seeds which fly off in every direction on their own rotors. The black cherry entices countless birds to eat its fruit, pit and all, and thereby spread its seeds afar on feathered wings.  What purpose does the avocado’s giant seed serve?

Gomphotheres--can you imagine these guys running around Texas?

Well, avocado trees as a species are ancient.  They evolved together with giant mammals like glyptodons, gomphotheres, and giant sloths.  These immense herbivores could eat avocados whole and not even notice the seeds. The animals would forage away from the original tree and, in the course of time, leave the seed in a totally different location along with a pile of fertilizer.  Osage oranges are similarly symbiotic with the giant extinct grazers.  In the absence of these creatures, wild avocados and Osage oranges are slowly losing ground to other trees–even if human kind has planted the avocado for food and the Osage orange for its springy wood (which is perfect for archery).

Giant Sloth

So what happened to all these wonderful beasties?  Why is a nature documentary shot on the grasslands of Africa today so much more satisfying then one from the great Texas Llano?  Alas, they went extinct 12000 to 14000 years ago—just about the same time humankind showed up. It turns out the first humans to get to the New World loved killing charismatic megafauna even more than Buffalo Bill did.

Early Americans stalk a glyptodon.

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